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After 25 years of bureaucratic and political dogfights, the National Park Service soon will adopt a plan restricting noise from tourist aircraft at the Grand Canyon. But the plan is making few happy.
Even the park superintendent says the plan doesn't go far enough to protect Grand Canyon's "soundscapes." Air tour operators say it will hurt their business.
The plan would limit the number of flights, hours and routes that tour operators could fly over the 277-mile-long park. It also requires quieter planes and helicopters, a conversion air tour operators such as Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters say they've already begun.
"It is the best plan the park service could get given the conditions we have to deal with," says Grand Canyon park Superintendent David Uberuaga, referring to opposition from tour operators and what he called the Federal Aviation Administration's attempts to "delay" and "sidetrack" the plan. But it is not, he says, enough to restore "natural quiet" to one of the world's natural wonders.
The FAA could still recommend changes based on safety concerns after the NPS releases its plan. FAA spokesman Hank Price says the two agencies "have worked cooperatively for years to implement actions to improve aviation safety and environmental quality" at the Grand Canyon.
The restrictions are one of the most significant actions in a quarter-century struggle to balance commercial tourism with the natural sounds and solitude of the outdoors. The Grand Canyon has up to 57,000 air tour flights in a year, the most of any national park.
Noise-control plans are underway for other parks, but their preparation also has dragged on since the 2000 law requiring them. That's largely because of conflicting missions between the NPS, tasked with protecting "natural quiet," and the FAA, responsible for air safety.
Roughly 100 national parks and monuments have air tours over them. "The world has become a noisier place," says Karen Trevino, director of the park service's Natural Sounds Program.
The park service also is trying to address concerns of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other politicians who want to make sure the Grand Canyon plan doesn't undercut the FAA's oversight of commercial flights into neighboring airports, including Las Vegas, or set precedents for commercial flights elsewhere. McCain co-sponsored the 1987 law calling for Grand Canyon air tour restrictions after two helicopters crashed in 1986, killing 25.
The Grand Canyon plan would cap the number of annual air tour flights at 65,000, 14(PERCENT) more than the previous high. But hours around sunset and sunrise would be off-limits, and planes and helicopters would be required to have noise-abating technology. Operators are not happy.
"The people who see the Grand Canyon by air, which is upwards of 800,000 people annually, will continue to see it, but we will have some restrictions that are pretty hard to swallow from an economic standpoint," says Alan Stephen, vice president of corporate affairs for Papillon, the largest air tour operator around the park.
He says Papillon has spent $185million on quieter aircraft and that a private study by Elliot D. Pollack & Co. showed the National Park Service's plan could cost jobs and reduce $104 million annual revenue at the top three companies flying over the canyon by $18.4 million. Superintendent Uberuaga says the study overstates the impact.
Trevino says the NPS is focusing most on flights over a handful of other heavily visited parks and monuments, including Golden Gate, Mount Rainier, Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty.
Bryan Faehner of the National Parks Conservation Association a group that supports park preservation says the FAA is accustomed to handling airports, "where noise is an acceptable impact. But the parks are places where people go for peace and quiet."
Aircraft noise over the Statue of Liberty is so loud that Superintendent David Luchsinger has restricted the size of ground tours so park guides can be heard.
Flights of tourist, law enforcement and private aircraft over the iconic monument "are so frequent, especially on nice days, there is almost this constant drone, and our folks are hard to hear," Luchsinger says. An agreement there has been elusive because so many government jurisdictions are involved.
Congress last month gave the superintendent of Oregon's Crater Lake National Park the power to approve air tours. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called it "a first step in keeping our national parks free of noise pollution that can ruin visitors' experience of our national treasures." Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado has had a 14-year ban on air tours.
Mary Killeen, Grand Canyon National Park's planning chief, says the park service's mission "is to protect our resources. And soundscape is a resource."